In a drawer in her bedroom Anjula* has a pile of unopened letters that have been arriving at her Dubai postbox over the past three years. She suspects they’re about her student loan back home in the UK, but she doesn’t know for sure.
Since her work as a freelance designer took a downturn almost four years ago, she’s ignored all efforts from banks to get in touch. She doesn’t answer their calls, their numbers are blocked on her home phone, and she lets calls to her mobile go straight to voicemail, which she then deletes as if they were nuisance calls.
She is living off a local credit card with the lowest possible payment coming off her account each month – not that she checks. But Anjula’s main fear is that she’ll eventually lose the flat she loves. Living alone, she has no one to help shoulder the financial burden. So she just puts bank statements into the drawer unopened. “When anyone asks me how work is going, I smile and say, ‘Fine thanks, how are you getting on?’,” confides Anjula. “And most of the time I believe it’s going well for me. But realistically, I’m doing a fraction of the freelance work that I used to do, and what work I get is paying less. I’ve no idea what’s in my accounts, but I withdraw money as if I’m still earning a decent salary and use my credit card a lot.
“I don’t want to know the figures involved. I feel sick at the thought of knowing. In my head, if I can’t see the statements they don’t exist. I don’t go overboard with my spending, I’ve cut back a lot. That’s how I justify things, so what use would opening the letters be?
“Every time I use my credit card or withdraw money I get a sick feeling in my stomach that this might be the day the money has run out. But so far it hasn’t. It’s easier this way. Sitting down and looking at figures makes me feel panicky and scared. I’ve thought about getting another job but I love the freedom of freelancing.”
By avoiding contact with her bank, Anjula is showing signs of the Ostrich Syndrome, a psychological term to describe behaviour where we proverbially stick our heads in the sand to ignore our problems. And she isn’t alone. Even if we haven’t used avoidance strategies ourselves, we all know people who’ve ignored a lump on their body in the hope it would go away; let relationships fizzle out instead of breaking up; or ignored the phone because they know it’s someone they’d rather not talk to. Sometimes avoidance seems the easier, more comfortable way out, but experts say we pay the price in the long term.
“Ostrich Syndrome relates to a style of coping called ‘avoidance coping’, and we use it to manage uncomfortable feelings we may experience in different situations,” explains Carey Kirk, a counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai.
“While avoidance itself isn’t a condition, in extreme cases, it can be a symptom of a mental health disorder, such as anxiety.
“People use avoidance coping in any number of areas, such as bills, confrontations, public speaking and making decisions. What we avoid is dependent on what makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s possible that a person who avoids looking at her bills may well be assertive in a conflict situation, or someone who avoids public speaking might well speak her mind in her personal relationships.”
According to Carey, we can be ostriches at any age and the syndrome can be seen in a child who refuses to acknowledge they have to move house, the teenager who avoids his girlfriend so he doesn’t have to break up with her, the college student who doesn’t take part in activities because she doesn’t want to risk failing, and the 45-year-old parents who don’t discuss the fact their child is leaving home for university.
“Avoidance is a form of non-acceptance of life,” continues Carey. “It’s a way of trying to fight reality and this takes a lot of energy. One of the risks of being an ostrich is being short of energy in other areas of our lives. We may feel fatigued, have difficulty concentrating, or be irritable for reasons we can’t identify. We don’t realise that our energy is being used elsewhere.
“Another risk of being an ostrich is anxiety and discomfort around certain topics, circumstances or areas in our lives. For example, if someone ignores an envelope that looks like a bill, this behaviour can soothe her anxiety in the short term, but what happens when she receives another bill? Her anxiety and discomfort will come up again, but this time it’s more intense because she knows there are even more things she can’t face. The next bill gets ignored and we become trapped in a negative cycle, where avoidance feeds into our anxiety, and this then prompts us to push our heads even further into the sand.”
But surely there are rewards? Otherwise, why would we even do this? “Avoidance can be useful for a short period when we don’t have the time, energy or resources to deal with the source of our distress,” says Carey. “But the difference between avoidance coping and healthy coping is that in healthy coping we consciously make the decision to deal with things later and we follow through by coming back to the issue when we do have the resources.”
Toby Ingham, a psychotherapist and counsellor based in the UK, says the risks associated with Ostrich Syndrome can be huge, and in some cases, even life-threatening. As an example, he quotes the man who knows at the beginning of the month he doesn’t have enough in his bank account to cover his mortgage payment, but instead of going to the bank to reach a payment agreement, he spends the money on other things regardless and gets into more debt. If he continues to do this, month after month, he risks losing his house.
“In relationships, ostriches close their minds and they hide from what they can see, so they stay in loveless marriages,” says Toby. “Parents who are ostriches refuse to see their children have problems so they don’t get them assessed or treated. This may be because they feel a shame or guilt about their parenting, but denying the problem exists isn’t helping the child in any way. The longer you put off dealing with issues, the more you will lose.
“Someone who ignores a pain in their stomach could discover they have bowel cancer but if they’d got it checked early on, they might have had a better chance at treatments working. The same goes for a woman who finds a lump in her breast and just hopes it will vanish. Early diagnosis of some medical conditions can literally mean the difference between life and death and getting checked out can save months of underlying worry. The more you procrastinate, the bigger the stakes.”
So what can be done? Psychologists say ostrich behaviour is often learnt in childhood from our parents, so for some of us we’re trying to overturn deeply ingrained habits. Toby says the first thing an ostrich can do is simple, yet it is key to recovery. “These people simply need to get their head out of the sand and look up, open their eyes and notice the things they’re concerned about,” he says. “It’s good to have someone to talk to, be that a good friend, a partner or a psychotherapist. The old saying of a problem shared is a problem halved is true. Ostriches are notorious for not telling people their problems in general.
“The next stage is to commit to a small step every day. Begin with the easy things – what I call the low-hanging fruit. It might be to go and make an appointment at a clinic or to see the bank manager.”
Carey agrees that recognising the issue is the first step out of the syndrome. “Saying to ourselves: ‘I am avoiding speaking to my boss/opening my bills/ the fact that I have to move,’ helps us take ownership of our behaviour,” she says. “Looking at what our behaviour is costing us might be enough motivation to make the tough changes.”
She also recommends we identify what feelings we’re trying to avoid, such as a sense of sadness or panic, or feelings of inadequacy, guilt or self-hatred. For Anjula, the feeling of not having much income and losing her place in the world of work is lack of worth.
“Be aware of your internal dialogue,” Carey suggests.
“Emotions don’t arise from situations. They arise from what we tell ourselves about the situation, so question what you’re telling yourself. When faced with a bill, we may experience anxiety because we’re telling ourselves. ‘If I open this, I won’t be able to cope.’ But challenging our internal dialogue can reduce some of the intensity of our uncomfortable feelings.”
So once we’ve kicked the legs out from under our beliefs and inner talk, what does life look like? Carey says, “When we face life head on, we live more authentically, courageously and in the moment. We have more energy to invest in the areas we’re passionate about. We can respond to situations with greater accuracy and we can feel more in control of our lives, our reactions and the direction in which we’re heading.”
*Name has been changed.